Game cancellations and postponements due to COVID-19 have shaped the collegiate hockey season thus far.
After falling to American International College back on Jan. 2, the Long Island University Sharks were eager to turn the page and put an end to their two-game skid. Instead, they had to wait 11 days between contests to right the ship.
With nine cancellations and over 20 schedule shifts, the 2020-21 college hockey season has been challenging for the young LIU program, to say the least.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t frustrating.” Coach Riley said during an interview with NYI Hockey Now. “Twice we were on the bus getting ready to go, but that’s a part of the times. I think our guys are learning bigger lessons about life and persevering and being adaptable and making the most of unfortunate situations”.
While the time between games has been challenging, it has also been beneficial, according to defenseman Mat Harris.
“Coach always talks about how we need to build and then sustain momentum,” Harris told NYI Hockey Now. “And obviously, when you are practicing all week, and you got games kind of pulled from underneath you at the last second, it can be tough to do that. … I do think its’ been good for us, just to get those extra reps in.”
Given the amount of time off and the small sample size with just five games under their belt, it is hard to gauge the strength of this program. However, one of the easily noticeable bright spots has been the play of starting goaltender Garret Metcalf
Metcalf, an Anaheim Ducks draft pick, was featured among The Hockey News’ top 100 NCAA players to watch this season, and both Riley and Harris were quick to praise him.
“He’s been exceptional,” said Riley. “He comes from two programs, so he provides great perspective, a mature and calming presence that kind of goes over into our locker room. … On the ice, it’s just nice to know that we have someone who can bail us out when we make young mistakes or whether it be on the penalty kill.”
Assistant Coach @WillMessa takes us through where he thinks the team is at before their game against Sacred Heart.
Also what it has been like to work under @BrettRiley27 and along side @Gilhoolyj7 pic.twitter.com/UwENHnRemu
— LIU Hockey (@LIUMHockey) January 9, 2021
The Sharks defenseman later added that Metcalf had been “an absolute rock between the pipes” and what an asset he had been. Metcalf has a .926 save percentage and a 2.75 goals-against average this season.
Goaltending plays a significant role on the penalty kill, and thus far, the Sharks have killed off penalties close to 83 percent. On the other side of the special team’s coin, the power play has needed work, converting on just 17 of their chances so far.
“I think it’s luck and bounces, but we have to find a way to create those luck and bounces,” Riley said. “That’s not an excuse. We’re working there, and obviously, we’ve struggled to score lately.”
LIU had been outscored 11 to 17 over the first five games and averaged just 2.2 goals per game. When asked about the offensive struggles, Riley voiced the importance of being hungrier near the net.
“If we want to hang our hat on being a competitive team, we need to score goals that competitors do. We’re working at every area, every angle,” he explained.
Zack Bross's first period goal against No. 19 AIC! pic.twitter.com/WyffZqsxhn
— LIU Hockey (@LIUMHockey) January 2, 2021
But that is only a small part of the story. LIU has blocked 92 shots through the first five games, with Harris leading the pack with 13. To put that in perspective, their opponents have blocked a total of 32.
Sacrificing the body is something that the LIU hockey coach does not just request from his players, but he demands it.
“If you don’t block shots, you come out of the lineup. If you miss blocked shots in practice, you skate,” Riley said. “If you miss it in a game, it will be shown on video and your chances of playing the next night are far less. We are not the most skilled team in college hockey or close to it, but we say we want to be the most competitive team.
“If we are not blocking shots or finishing hits, we’re cheating ourselves of who we want to be.”
This team has only practiced 25 to 30 times as a team in program history, and Coach Riley knows his team has a long way to go but is proud of where his guys are. Heading into Wednesday’s game against American International College, the focus at practice has not been on the opponent at hand but on themselves.
“We do a lot of 5 on 5 situational games, a lot of focus on faceoff plays and our offensive zone play”, Harris said. “We’ve been having a lot of success the last few weeks in practice, and we hope that can translate to the game coming up here.”